How to Think Creatively


By Dave Hood

A student searches for an idea for a project, but he cannot unearth anything inspirational. A female writer sits at her desk, reflects on her past, but cannot find an idea to stretch into a poem. A photographer desires to create a visual metaphor with a photograph, but is unable to find an association between idea and visual image. These people were unable to express their creative abilities because they had not learned how to think creatively.

For many years, I was just like these people—always struggling to discover a good idea to solve a problem or challenge. Then I read a book called “ Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques” by Michael Michalko and learned these techniques of creative thinking.

Based on my own experience, anyone can learn to think creatively. And once you learn, you can express your creative spirit. You’ll be able to discover and transform novel ideas onto some object of creativity, such as a poem, short story, painting, song, photograph. Here are 12 creative thinking techniques I use and recommend you learn:

  1. Brainstorming
  2. Mind mapping
  3. Starbursting
  4. Shifting perspective
  5.  Challenging assumptions.
  6. Imagination
  7. Draw, sketch, diagram, doodle, storyboarding
  8. Metaphorical thinking
  9. Attribute list or slice and dice.
  10. Random Input
  12. Focused Freewriting


It is probable the most popular type of creative thinking. You can do it by yourself or in a group. Essentially, you are faced with a problem or challenge. You sit and write down any possible ideas that come to mind—without analyzing or judging or criticizing. After the brainstorming session, you review the costs and benefits or pros and cons of each idea. For instance, suppose you wanted to take photographs of a flower, you could sit down and list a few possibilities:

  • Locations, such as garden or indoors or studio
  • Arrangement
  • Type of flower
  • Lighting
  • Theme

Afterwards, you would fill in the details for each idea. The problem with brainstorming is that most people don’t explore all possibilities. They unearth a few ideas and then stop searching. Consequently, you fail to find other ideas that might be better.

Mind mapping

It is a popular visual technique for brainstorming or solving a problem, popularized by Tony Buzan.  You can use this technique to generate ideas for anything. Begin with a pen and piece of paper. (You can use different colours of pens or pencils to represent each subtopic.) Then do the following:

  1. Find an idea you wish to explore.
  2. Take a blank piece of paper, and write down the idea in the middle of the page, and then circle the idea.
  3. For each subtopic, draw a line from the circle and write it down the subtopic on the line.
  4. For each fact, concept, or piece of information that is associated with a subtopic, draw a line from the subheading and write down the related detail.

Be sure to use simple words and phrases.


Starbursting  ( Asking journalistic questions)

Starbursting is another form of brainstorming. You can uncover details about any topic, problem, or challenge. Starbursting requires that you answer the following questions:

  1. Who?
  2. What?
  3. When?
  4. Where?
  5. Why?
  6. How?

For instance, suppose you wanted to explore the topic that you have little knowledge, such as memory. You might begin by asking these journalistic questions: What is memory? What is it like to not have a memory? How do we lose our memory? How can we improve our memory? Why is memory important?

Many writers use this technique. It is powerful way to find ideas for some topic or issue you know little about. This technique is also a way to add details to your creative writing, answering these questions with your own life experiences and memories. You can explore any experience in your life by answering these questions.

Shifting Perspective

Many people read memoirs and biographies and autobiographies to learn from the experts. You can easily generate ideas by changing your point of view. Instead of seeing the problem or challenge from your own perspective, imagine that you are someone else viewing the problem or challenge. Then ask yourself how someone else would solve the problem or find a solution. You can pretend you are someone you admire. Example: How does the Dalia Lama live his life when there is a challenge? How would Picasso paint the painting? How would Lincoln solve the problem? How would an athlete train to become a hockey player, baseball player, football player, soccer player, golfer? How did T.S. Eliot write his poetry?

Using your Imagination (The Mind’s Eye)

Your imagination can be a powerful creative thinking technique. There are two techniques of imagination you can use: Mental imagery or creative visualization. Mental imagery requires that you rely on your senses to fill in the details for some mental image. Here is how:

  1. Imagine some object or thing, such as a flower in your mind’s eye.
  2. Fill in the details using your sensory memories. You must imagine the object or thing in your mind.  Visualize what its appearance, the smell, the taste, how it feels, and what you hear. Create a mental image in your mind.
  3. Afterwards, write down the details.

Creative visualization is another creative thinking technique you can use to generate ideas. It requires that you use your mind’s eye to image a desired outcome. Visualize each step, and then visualize and the desired outcome. For instance, suppose you are faced with a challenge: You want to produce a new digital camera, one that is better than the competition. You will visualize each step, taking into account the obstacles and challenges, and then end with the desired digital camera, one with the new features. As you explore each step, you will generate additional ideas.

Doodling, Sketching, Drawing, Diagramming

You can use doodling, sketching, drawing, or diagramming to generate new ideas. The painter sketches before he paints. The architect creates a diagram before he builds a model. The engineer draws a picture of the imaged product. Before taking a still life image in the studio, the photographer sketches out an arrangement of objects.  Diagramming, sketching, doodling—each of these will enable you to create visual results. Essentially, you are transforming an idea into a picture.

Challenging Assumptions

What are assumptions? Often we believe something is true without knowing for sure that it is true. You can generate ideas by challenging your assumptions. Here is how: Ask yourself, what assumptions do I have about this problem or challenge? Perhaps my assumptions are incorrect. Why are my assumptions right? Consider other possibilities. Why might I be wrong? Consider other possibilities. By challenging your assumptions about a problem or challenge, you can explore other possibilities. For instance, suppose you believed the following: Street photography requires that I take pictures of people on the street. To find out whether this assumption is right, you conduct a Google search, and learn that street photography includes taking photos of people in a park, on the beach, in a mall, and most public places. By challenging your assumptions, you have learned that these assumptions were incorrect. Igor Stravinsky said, “I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuit of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom or knowledge.”

Metaphorical Thinking

You can use metaphorical thinking to think creatively. Creative writers use this technique to write poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. It requires that you make associations between two different things, without using “like” or “as.” For instance, Victor Hugo, author of the historical novel Le Miserable’s wrote the following metaphor: “Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.” A metaphor is a way to talk about one thing by describing something else. A metaphor also requires you to use your imagination and senses. Metaphors are never only true or false. Often a metaphor is a paradox—suggesting things that are not true. Writers use metaphorical thinking to find associations between different things. But you can use it to generate ideas to tackle most problems or challenges.

There are two ways to think metaphorically. First, you can use your imagination to discover a visual metaphor. Photographers and other artists use visual metaphors to create art. For instance, you can represent solitude with a visual image of a person sitting at the end of an empty dock, on an empty beach, or alone in a boat. Secondly, you can create a metaphor with words. Begin by selecting an idea, such as “winter.” Next, think of as many different associations as possible. Here are a few:

  • The snow is the confetti of winter.
  • The winter wind is an artist sculpturing snow drifts into abstractions
  • The frigid air of winter is always painful memory.
  • Icicles hanging from the eaves are knives ready to plunge.
  • Blinding snow blankets the city.

Attribute Listing

Michael Michalko calls this creative thinking technique “slice and dice.”It involves listing the attributes for a problem or challenge and then identify associations. Here’s how to use attribute listing:

  1. State your problem or challenge.
  2. Analyze and identify as many attributes as you can.
  3. Take each attribute and think of ways to change or improve it. Ask yourself: What are other ways to accomplish this? Why must it be done this way?
  4. Write down your new associations, and then explore them further.

For instance, suppose you desire to take a photograph of a flower in a vase. You desire to create something novel. You could use attribute listing to explore the components of your photograph:

  • Lighting. Window light or off-camera flash?
  • Backdrop. Wall or backdrop or something else?
  • Arrangement.  Disorganized? Cluttered? Patterned?
  • Special effects. Color or black and white?

Random Input

This creative thinking technique requires that you juxtapose  unrelated ideas, things, or concepts.

You must often generate ideas by brute force thinking—- combining two different words, concepts, objects. Here’s how to use the technique of random input:

  1. Select a word, at random, from the dictionary. Use simple words you know, ideally an action verb or a concrete noun. Example: You select “pencil” from dictionary. Use this word to spark associations in your mind.
  2. What are its features? List the features
  3. What is the function or purpose of the word “pencil?” Identify the purpose of the object or thing.
  4. Think of the associations of pencil. Examples: drawing, sketching, writing down a to-do list, completing a math test.
  5. Make a forced connection between your “challenge” and “pencil.”

You won’t use most of these connections you discover. However, you might find one powerful idea that you can transform into some object of creativity.


SCAMPER is an acronym for one of the more elaborate creative thinking techniques. This acronym stands for:

  • S-substitute or simplify a part, step, feature, component
  • C-combine ideas, parts, components
  • A-adopt-What can be change?
  • M-modify or distort. What happens when you exaggerate or distort?
  • P-put to other purpose. Can you use the idea for some other purpose?
  • E-eliminate. What happens when you eliminate a part, feature, and component?
  • R-rearrange- What happens when you reverse? What happens when you change the order?

You can learn more details about this creative thinking technique by completing a search on Google or by reading “Thinkertoys.”

Focused Freewriting

Creative writers use this technique to generate ideas for poems, short stories, essays, and other types of creative writing. Here is how to use this technique:

  1. Select a topic you wish to explore
  2.  Sit down with a pen and paper.
  3. Write for ten or fifteen minutes about the topic.
  4. Jot down anything that comes to mind.
  5. Afterwards, review what you have written, and see if there is anything of value.

Focused freewriting is a powerful tool for discovering what is filed away in your memory or unconsciousness.

You don’t have to be a creative genius, like Thomas Edison, Bob Dylan, Steve Jobs, Arnold Newman, Pablo Picasso, or a member of The Beatles, to express your creative spirit. Most people are capable of acquiring the attributes of the creative personality.  Most people are also capable of unlocking those mental locks, such as “I’m not creative,” which prevent them from expressing their creative spirit. As well, if motivated, most people can turn creative routines into habits and learn to think creatively.  The problem is that many people procrastinate, make excuses, are afraid of failure, or lack motivation. If you desire to become creative, you must learn to think creatively. Begin by learning and using these creative thinking techniques when you need to generate an idea. Over time, they will become creative mental habits.

Additional Reading

To learn more about creative thinking, read the following:

  • A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech
  • Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmaihalyi
  • The Creative Brain: Seven steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity,  and Innovation in Your Life by Shelley Carson
  • Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
  • Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques by Michael Michalko
  • The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life by Twyla Tharp

About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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