What if I run out of ideas?

5 tips to keep your creative juices flowing

(Inspired by and dedicated to my step-daughter, Beth)                          

My stepdaughter recently started her first post-college job, at a branding firm in Pittsburgh. On her first day, I found myself thinking about my own early days in this business.

When I started my career in advertising, I loved everything about creative development (or “concepting” or “ideation,” among other terms). Even now, I’m fascinated by the process of dreaming up ways to make words and pictures work together to create certain perceptions.

My only fear in those early days was “What if I run out of ideas?! What if I find myself staring at a blank paper, screen, or cocktail napkin with crickets chirping!?” Well, I’m happy to report that the ideas come faster the longer I do this. BUT, we’re all human… and we all hit log-jams from time to time. For the most part, you can get past those quickly if you apply a few creative rules of thumb. Here are five that I recommend.

  1. Think like a kid.

Children see the world with fresh eyes. They have a wonderful ability to see humor and beauty, and to find what matters most without making things complicated. Tap into that sense of wonder and simplicity to free your creative mind. As adults, we too often feel the need to make ideas more complex than necessary. If you add layers of interpretation to a creative concept, you risk creating a “bed of nails” with so many points that no point stands out.

  1. Revisit your life experiences.

Have you ever heard a song and immediately relived a strong memory in vivid detail? The same thing happens to me when I see a photo or read an old letter. Your life is full of sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations and emotions. It can all be a very deep well of inspiration for creativity, so don’t hesitate to dip into it.

  1. Let your babies go.

They say that nobody has an ugly baby. Well, I apply that same theory to creative ideas: If we conceive it, we’re convinced it is brilliant! It might be… but if you keep conceiving, you’ll soon have an entire family of ideas you can be proud of. (And in fact, one of the many siblings is much more likely to be the brilliant one.) Don’t stop at your first idea. Keep going. And don’t be afraid to let go of your idea when a better one comes from someone else (this last statement shouldn’t really relate to your actual children, please)

  1. Learn from the youngsters.

I am fortunate to be exposed to many younger creative minds. As RDW’s creative director, I find that wonderful new opinions and ideas come from all corners of our company. I also teach a college course on advertising creativity, in which I am routinely inspired by the next generation of ideators. If your ego has you talking more than listening when you’re in a room full of millennials, shut up for a while. With your mouth closed and your mind open, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  1. Do your homework.

This is the most potent log-jam buster. You’ll always find creative stagnation where there is little in the way of input. So learn about your target audience: What matters to them? What motivates them? What are their lives like? Then, focus on the message: What do we want them to think? Why should they care? How can we prove that what we’re saying is true? If you can answer these questions with real information — not opinion — you’ll find it much easier to keep the ideas coming.


Are there more than five ways to keep ideas coming? Of course; there are infinite ways to avoid running out of ideas. These five work for me. Feel free to try them out for yourself, and to share any of your own.

(Go get ’em, Beth!)