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4 Ways Random Objects Can Spark New Business Ideas

Collaboration with internal and external players can help unlock new ideas for growth strategy.
Photo credit: Malambo C/peopleimages.com - stock.adobe.com

In this three-part series of articles, author Marshall Atkinson helps you generate new ideas to find and land new customers. The first article discussed the power of collaboration. Below, Part 2 of “The Idea Generator” explains how to use randomness to spark creativity.

TOP TAKEAWAYS:

  • When you’re trying to come up with creative ideas, either for your own business or a client’s, it’s easy to get stuck. Instead of rehashing your old ideas or copying someone else’s, try harnessing the power of randomness.
  • You can choose random words from a book or from index cards, notice random sights and sounds, or grab a random object around the house to serve as your inspiration. Brainstorming based on a random input can help your mind connect ideas in new and innovative ways.
     
  • The key to successfully using the random approach is to treat it as play, not work. Don’t try too hard. Instead, let your mind wander freely and note down any idea that comes to you, no matter how silly or irrelevant it seems.

EXPERT INSIGHTS:

Do you own a graphic design company, marketing agency, website design firm or other business that involves coming up with creative logos, images, designs and taglines? Perhaps you’re trying to develop a brand identity for your startup from scratch. How do you spark creativity and come up with new ideas that not only look great, but also sell?

Professional creatives may get lazy and resort to mirroring or copying designs they’ve used before. Nervous DIYers may just do an online search and incorporate designs from others. Don’t fall back on that approach, especially when there are so many rich and powerful ideas surrounding you. Instead, use the power of “randomness” to help inspire your creativity.

The following are a few mental exercises that will help you unlock a new idea. First, I’ll suggest a pretend client project; then, I’ll share four ways you can rapidly think up new ideas to use. An operative word for these exercises is the word “play.” Relax and let your mind wander so that your imagination can run loose.

Here’s the scenario: A local restaurant has approached you looking to rebrand, and they want designs for everything from their logo and signage to takeout bags and shirts for their staff to wear (and to potentially sell to customers). The name of the restaurant is Fred’s Bar and Grill, and the owner wants something creative and unique.

Idea Generator 1: Random Words

I want to introduce you to the power behind connecting random words to form an idea. There are multiple ways to do this. Pick up a book, close your eyes, open the book to any page, randomly point to a spot on the page and open your eyes. The word you pointed to is the first word you can use. Then, open to a different page (or grab a different book) and repeat the process for the second word. You also can use an online random-word generator for the same effect. 

This method works best if you use between two and four randomly selected words. For our purposes, I selected four words: 

  • Understanding 
  • Plastic 
  • Balance 
  • Fragment
     

Once you have the words, you can doodle some designs using them for inspiration, blending them into the idea or using only one word. Here are some examples that came to mind for me: 

  1. Fragment: Can we dice up the words in the restaurant’s name and shift them around a little bit? Imagine if the words or the logo were printed on glass and then slightly moved around. I can visualize a modern and sleek look for this type of design.
  2. Balance: Create tension by stacking the words or letters vertically. Play with the visual weight of some of the letters or words to create asymmetrical balance.
  3. Plastic: Among a sea of plastic pink flamingos is the Fred’s Bar and Grill logo. This is fun and quirky.
  4. Understanding: I connect this to empathy. Maybe a big, bold headline — “FREE FRY FRIDAYS!” — and underneath: “We know what you crave!”
     

I like this technique because it’s unpredictable. The images and notions come to us when we try to connect the randomly chosen words with the project or customer. The random words stimulate your brain; if you’re open to receiving new ideas, they’ll flow to you. Don’t like the words you chose? Pick again; there are no rules.

Idea Generator 2: Index Cards

The index card approach is similar to the random-word generator, except that in this case, you’re purposely choosing the words. Grab a cheap stack of index cards and a marker. Jot down one word per card that you can use to shape your creative imagery. Here are some examples:

Shapes: “round,” “square,” “box,” “amoeba,” “cloud”
Colors: “black,” “red,” “green,” “brown,” “pink”
Power Words: “strong,” “bold,” “dense,” “thick,” “rough”
Weak Words: “thin,” “clear,” “smooth,” “small,” “light”
Descriptive Words: “brave,” “cheerful,” “sporty,” “old,” “clean”
Nouns: “time,” “thing,” “point,” “line,” “group”

Write as many words as you can think of in one sitting. Shuffle the index cards and pick three or four. You can also combine the index card and random word techniques. For example, choose the pink plastic flamingo idea and jumpstart the design process by adding these words: 

  • Round 
  • Bold 
  • Thin 
  • Sporty
     

Come up with some ideas to sketch. What about a round design that uses bold colors, like fluorescent pink, seafoam green and black? It can feature text with a sporty look. The flamingo illustrations have that classic minimalist style you see with professional sports logos. Double thin outlines with the pink and seafoam green colors give it a slight art-deco or neon look.

Idea Generator 3: Random Things

This method may necessitate a field trip to Fred’s. If you can’t go in person, have someone give you a tour via video. What do you see? Is there something unique about the place that inspires you? Don’t start the process with your mind focused on one thing. Be open to the ideas that come to you and jot them down.

When you walk in the door, what’s the first thing you see? Maybe there’s a big fish tank front-and-center. What do you smell? Is there music? Use the things that strike you first as inspiration for a creative design. Maybe the smell of barbecue overwhelms you and gets your stomach rumbling. You could design T-shirts that feature a slab of ribs, some fire and “Taste This” in big and bold letters on the back. Do you hear a live band doing a sound check? That might inspire the idea of a guitar-themed shirt.

The key is to be open to receiving random thoughts as you experience the customer’s business. You can also brainstorm with clients and have them tell their story. What random mental images come to mind? Can you do something creative with them?

Idea Generator 4: Forced Randomness

Get up from your desk and go to your garage, backyard or a different room. Pick up the first thing you see and take it back to your work area. This object will be the starting point for developing new ideas. For example, I grabbed a soccer ball. What does a soccer ball have to do with Fred’s Bar and Grill? Nothing. That’s the point.

Let’s see what I can develop: 

  • It’s a ball. You kick a ball: “Happy Hour Kicks Off at 6 p.m.!” 
  • It has a black-and-white pattern: Design a new logo with a similar pattern. 
  • The ball is used in a game: “Game Night Every Monday!” 
  • It’s used by a team: “Bring Your Team Down After the Game!” 
  • You score with the ball: “Score Cheap Drinks and Apps Every Thursday at Fred’s” 
  • A soccer game has time limits: “Happy Hour from 6 to 9” 
  • Soccer has crazy fans: “Fred’s Lunatic Fan Club” 
  • Soccer is played on grass, which is green: A green T-shirt design with the logo. 
  • Soccer fans wear scarves: Design a new line of Fred’s scarves. 
  • Soccer fans are boisterous and loud: “Loud Music Rules at Fred’s”
     

You can do this trick with any object and for any purpose. The ideas don’t even have to make sense; sometimes the weirdest things can lead to better ideas. Keep thinking and make sure you write the ideas down. Start doodling and creating thumbnails as you go. This is where the magic happens.

Activate Creative Thinking

If you use these techniques, the final product be unique and original, because it’s the result of how you see things. Using the same random stimulus, I may think up an entire series of different ideas. That’s because we’re different people. 

What does the word “black,” a flower, a 1967 pickup truck and a circle have in common? I don’t know — but combining them could create a fantastic T-shirt design. 

Can you develop new patterns or connections using those four elements? For example, would you make the flower black or the pickup truck black? Is everything black or is that a starter color? Are you using contrasting colors like yellow to make things pop? If “Fred’s Bar and Grill” were incorporated in the design, where would you put it? Would it go above everything like a headline, or more subtle like a painted-door logo on the truck? (I don’t know why, but I immediately want to put a surfboard in the bed of the truck.)

Could you have arrived at that mental image without these random word choices? Maybe, but who knows? Try these random methods, and when someone asks you how you come up with your amazing concepts, you can say, “Sometimes the ideas just come to you.”

This article is adapted from a piece initially published by Impressions Magazine. Marshall Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Consulting LLC, is a decorated-apparel industry production and efficiency expert who focuses on operational efficiency; continuous improvement and workflow strategy; business planning; employee motivation; management; and sustainability. He also co-founded a decorated-apparel industry sales and marketing education company called Shirt Lab. For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at marshall@marshallatkinson.com. 

 

4 Ways Random Objects Can Spark New Business Ideas

by | Sep 11, 2023

Collaboration with internal and external players can help unlock new ideas for growth strategy.

In this three-part series of articles, author Marshall Atkinson helps you generate new ideas to find and land new customers. The first article discussed the power of collaboration. Below, Part 2 of “The Idea Generator” explains how to use randomness to spark creativity.

TOP TAKEAWAYS:

  • When you’re trying to come up with creative ideas, either for your own business or a client’s, it’s easy to get stuck. Instead of rehashing your old ideas or copying someone else’s, try harnessing the power of randomness.
  • You can choose random words from a book or from index cards, notice random sights and sounds, or grab a random object around the house to serve as your inspiration. Brainstorming based on a random input can help your mind connect ideas in new and innovative ways.
     
  • The key to successfully using the random approach is to treat it as play, not work. Don’t try too hard. Instead, let your mind wander freely and note down any idea that comes to you, no matter how silly or irrelevant it seems.

EXPERT INSIGHTS:

Do you own a graphic design company, marketing agency, website design firm or other business that involves coming up with creative logos, images, designs and taglines? Perhaps you’re trying to develop a brand identity for your startup from scratch. How do you spark creativity and come up with new ideas that not only look great, but also sell?

Professional creatives may get lazy and resort to mirroring or copying designs they’ve used before. Nervous DIYers may just do an online search and incorporate designs from others. Don’t fall back on that approach, especially when there are so many rich and powerful ideas surrounding you. Instead, use the power of “randomness” to help inspire your creativity.

The following are a few mental exercises that will help you unlock a new idea. First, I’ll suggest a pretend client project; then, I’ll share four ways you can rapidly think up new ideas to use. An operative word for these exercises is the word “play.” Relax and let your mind wander so that your imagination can run loose.

Here’s the scenario: A local restaurant has approached you looking to rebrand, and they want designs for everything from their logo and signage to takeout bags and shirts for their staff to wear (and to potentially sell to customers). The name of the restaurant is Fred’s Bar and Grill, and the owner wants something creative and unique.

Idea Generator 1: Random Words

I want to introduce you to the power behind connecting random words to form an idea. There are multiple ways to do this. Pick up a book, close your eyes, open the book to any page, randomly point to a spot on the page and open your eyes. The word you pointed to is the first word you can use. Then, open to a different page (or grab a different book) and repeat the process for the second word. You also can use an online random-word generator for the same effect. 

This method works best if you use between two and four randomly selected words. For our purposes, I selected four words: 

  • Understanding 
  • Plastic 
  • Balance 
  • Fragment
     

Once you have the words, you can doodle some designs using them for inspiration, blending them into the idea or using only one word. Here are some examples that came to mind for me: 

  1. Fragment: Can we dice up the words in the restaurant’s name and shift them around a little bit? Imagine if the words or the logo were printed on glass and then slightly moved around. I can visualize a modern and sleek look for this type of design.
  2. Balance: Create tension by stacking the words or letters vertically. Play with the visual weight of some of the letters or words to create asymmetrical balance.
  3. Plastic: Among a sea of plastic pink flamingos is the Fred’s Bar and Grill logo. This is fun and quirky.
  4. Understanding: I connect this to empathy. Maybe a big, bold headline — “FREE FRY FRIDAYS!” — and underneath: “We know what you crave!”
     

I like this technique because it’s unpredictable. The images and notions come to us when we try to connect the randomly chosen words with the project or customer. The random words stimulate your brain; if you’re open to receiving new ideas, they’ll flow to you. Don’t like the words you chose? Pick again; there are no rules.

Idea Generator 2: Index Cards

The index card approach is similar to the random-word generator, except that in this case, you’re purposely choosing the words. Grab a cheap stack of index cards and a marker. Jot down one word per card that you can use to shape your creative imagery. Here are some examples:

Shapes: “round,” “square,” “box,” “amoeba,” “cloud”
Colors: “black,” “red,” “green,” “brown,” “pink”
Power Words: “strong,” “bold,” “dense,” “thick,” “rough”
Weak Words: “thin,” “clear,” “smooth,” “small,” “light”
Descriptive Words: “brave,” “cheerful,” “sporty,” “old,” “clean”
Nouns: “time,” “thing,” “point,” “line,” “group”

Write as many words as you can think of in one sitting. Shuffle the index cards and pick three or four. You can also combine the index card and random word techniques. For example, choose the pink plastic flamingo idea and jumpstart the design process by adding these words: 

  • Round 
  • Bold 
  • Thin 
  • Sporty
     

Come up with some ideas to sketch. What about a round design that uses bold colors, like fluorescent pink, seafoam green and black? It can feature text with a sporty look. The flamingo illustrations have that classic minimalist style you see with professional sports logos. Double thin outlines with the pink and seafoam green colors give it a slight art-deco or neon look.

Idea Generator 3: Random Things

This method may necessitate a field trip to Fred’s. If you can’t go in person, have someone give you a tour via video. What do you see? Is there something unique about the place that inspires you? Don’t start the process with your mind focused on one thing. Be open to the ideas that come to you and jot them down.

When you walk in the door, what’s the first thing you see? Maybe there’s a big fish tank front-and-center. What do you smell? Is there music? Use the things that strike you first as inspiration for a creative design. Maybe the smell of barbecue overwhelms you and gets your stomach rumbling. You could design T-shirts that feature a slab of ribs, some fire and “Taste This” in big and bold letters on the back. Do you hear a live band doing a sound check? That might inspire the idea of a guitar-themed shirt.

The key is to be open to receiving random thoughts as you experience the customer’s business. You can also brainstorm with clients and have them tell their story. What random mental images come to mind? Can you do something creative with them?

Idea Generator 4: Forced Randomness

Get up from your desk and go to your garage, backyard or a different room. Pick up the first thing you see and take it back to your work area. This object will be the starting point for developing new ideas. For example, I grabbed a soccer ball. What does a soccer ball have to do with Fred’s Bar and Grill? Nothing. That’s the point.

Let’s see what I can develop: 

  • It’s a ball. You kick a ball: “Happy Hour Kicks Off at 6 p.m.!” 
  • It has a black-and-white pattern: Design a new logo with a similar pattern. 
  • The ball is used in a game: “Game Night Every Monday!” 
  • It’s used by a team: “Bring Your Team Down After the Game!” 
  • You score with the ball: “Score Cheap Drinks and Apps Every Thursday at Fred’s” 
  • A soccer game has time limits: “Happy Hour from 6 to 9” 
  • Soccer has crazy fans: “Fred’s Lunatic Fan Club” 
  • Soccer is played on grass, which is green: A green T-shirt design with the logo. 
  • Soccer fans wear scarves: Design a new line of Fred’s scarves. 
  • Soccer fans are boisterous and loud: “Loud Music Rules at Fred’s”
     

You can do this trick with any object and for any purpose. The ideas don’t even have to make sense; sometimes the weirdest things can lead to better ideas. Keep thinking and make sure you write the ideas down. Start doodling and creating thumbnails as you go. This is where the magic happens.

Activate Creative Thinking

If you use these techniques, the final product be unique and original, because it’s the result of how you see things. Using the same random stimulus, I may think up an entire series of different ideas. That’s because we’re different people. 

What does the word “black,” a flower, a 1967 pickup truck and a circle have in common? I don’t know — but combining them could create a fantastic T-shirt design. 

Can you develop new patterns or connections using those four elements? For example, would you make the flower black or the pickup truck black? Is everything black or is that a starter color? Are you using contrasting colors like yellow to make things pop? If “Fred’s Bar and Grill” were incorporated in the design, where would you put it? Would it go above everything like a headline, or more subtle like a painted-door logo on the truck? (I don’t know why, but I immediately want to put a surfboard in the bed of the truck.)

Could you have arrived at that mental image without these random word choices? Maybe, but who knows? Try these random methods, and when someone asks you how you come up with your amazing concepts, you can say, “Sometimes the ideas just come to you.”

This article is adapted from a piece initially published by Impressions Magazine. Marshall Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Consulting LLC, is a decorated-apparel industry production and efficiency expert who focuses on operational efficiency; continuous improvement and workflow strategy; business planning; employee motivation; management; and sustainability. He also co-founded a decorated-apparel industry sales and marketing education company called Shirt Lab. For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at marshall@marshallatkinson.com.